COVID-19 has exposed a major weakness that development institutions must help tackle, and that is the digital divide in accessing quality education. While children in high- and middle-income economies could study from the comfort of their homes, those from poor countries could remain spectators in a world that should provide equal opportunity for all.


If there is one gargantuan development challenge the framers of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) didn’t envisage, it was the possibility of a global shut down. And that is exactly what has happened due to COVID-19. As the innovative cover of the Economist of March 21 puts it, the world is literally “closed.”

Like many around the world, I am working from home. I wrote this piece from home, because the world has shut down, making the home both the family abode and the workplace. Before the year 2020, working from home was a ‘luxury’ accepted by employers to give flexibility to employees. Today, it is the new normal.

While working from home, one major thing strikes me. Despite the closure of schools, my children are still attending classes, albeit virtually. Their computers and mobile phones have been transformed into classrooms. “Dad, I noticed something very interesting today,” my daughter said. What was that?, I asked inquisitively. “Our teacher had a better control of the class online,” she replied, and the conversation permeated into the advantages and disadvantages of online education.

I looked around the countries devastated by the impact of COVID-19. The story Is the same in most countries with high or reasonable internet penetration. Back in 2011, Harvard University professor, Clayton M. Christensen and his co-author, Henry Eyring, in their book The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out, made a clarion call to the ivory towers of learning to change and embrace online education. For them, traditional education was due for disruption. In fact, the introductory chapter of the book is titled, “Ripe for Disruption—and Innovation”.

It wouldn’t be out of context to quote them: “a disruptive innovation […] disrupts the bigger-and-better cycle by bringing to market a product or service that is not as good as the best traditional offerings but is more affordable and easier to use. Online learning is an example.” The two authors go on to warn institutions of higher learning that “if they cannot find innovative, less costly ways of performing their uniquely valuable functions, they are doomed to decline, high global and national rankings notwithstanding. Fortunately, such innovations are within their power.”

The digital divide is the latest form of economic inequality. Development practitioners and policy makers should join hands to make the availability of the internet in developing countries a major development priority.


Many institutions have heeded the call and are providing classes online. With COVID-19, a major advantage has been unveiled. Online education will move from being an alternative to the mainstream soon enough. Competition will skyrocket. Cheaper means of acquiring education will ensue. But that is only one part of the story. A friend told me that he was glad that one positive thing that has come out of this pandemic is that educational institutions charging parents exorbitant fees would have to do a rethink of their charges. Our children could receive quality education from home.

COVID-19 has exposed a major weakness that development institutions must help tackle, and that is the digital divide in accessing quality education. While children in high- and middle-income economies could study from the comfort of their homes, those from poor countries could remain spectators in a world that should provide equal opportunity for all.

Lack of connectivity and access to the internet is leaving communities in a disadvantaged position, even in developed countries. Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, and Carol Ann Brownie, Microsoft’s senior director of communications and external relations, stated in their 2019 classic, Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age, that “rural areas that lack broadband are still living in the twentieth century.” They found that “the highest unemployment rate in the country is located in the counties with the lowest availability of broadband, highlighting the strong link between broadband availability and economic growth.”

Certainly, there is global attention on returning 260 million children back to school worldwide. The answer is not in building mega physical infrastructure, rather, as Brad and Carol stated, we should concentrate on building what they call “Rural Broadband: The Electricity of the Twenty-First Century.”

The digital divide is the latest form of economic inequality. Development practitioners and policy makers should join hands to make the availability of the internet in developing countries a major development priority.

Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u is an author and development practitioner. Twitter: @jameelYushau

While the views expressed are strictly personal, an earlier version of this piece was published in SDGs Digest.

Image credit: MIT Technology Review.